It’s Sunday morning just after 10 and I’m standing in my bathtub fully clothed, scanning the horizon between towering neighborhood firs, binoculars trained on the furthest patch of Henderson Bay I can see. I just received a text message from the Orca Network: Orcas were spotted 20 minutes ago in Carr Inlet headed toward Purdy.
No sign of them from my tub. In two minutes I’m parked alongside the spit, just half a mile from home. The beach is deserted except for a man with a big-lensed camera and a woman with binoculars, their gazes sweeping the water. I’ve missed the whales. Again.
Just the day before, Orca Network alerted me that orcas had been spotted at 6:30 a.m. traveling south from Minter Creek toward Lakebay. I figured they were long gone when I headed out for a day of errands four hours later. But State Route 302 was backed up well past my road and it took several minutes to ease into the traffic and another 10 to inch along down to the spit. The shoulder was crowded with cars parked on both sides, with dozens of people piling back into those cars with cameras and binoculars in hand.
I learned that those early morning southbound transient orcas had flipped direction and swam not only back up Henderson Bay but into Burley Lagoon, under the Purdy Bridge and out again. Such a rare event and I’d been stuck in my car.
Twenty years ago on a summer morning, my daughters and I boarded a bus for a whale-watching excursion in the San Juan Islands while my husband attended a conference. It was our first trip to the Pacific Northwest.
A few minutes outside Friday Harbor, our captain turned off the engine and the boat bobbed as dozens of orcas swam in the near distance. They were huge, sleek, black-and-white bodies slicing through the water with silent grace, dorsal fins disappearing underwater in perfect symmetry.
Then one surfaced so close that I heard its breath before I saw it. That exhale, that vibration, struck a resonant chord in my body and something ancient in my soul leaped in response. Then I saw its eye and my own eyes overflowed. It felt like meeting God.
Most people, I think, would view meeting God or an intimate orca moment as a once-in-a-lifetime event and live content with the memory. I would’ve been one of those people, if I hadn’t moved to the shores of Puget Sound five years ago.
Since then, I’ve come to realize I’ve moved to the home of the endangered southern resident orcas (the pods I saw in the San Juans). I’ve immersed myself in orca education; joined the Center for Whale Research; read “Death at Seaworld”; watched “Blackfish”; learned the differences between the transient (or Bigg’s) mammal-eating orcas and the southern residents and the perils of water pollution, lack of salmon and falling birthrates they face. Last year, I attended Orca Network volunteer training.
I’ve dropped everything on a dozen occasions and, prompted by Facebook posts, headed to the nearest viewpoint looking for orcas. (There is always someone else at the lookout as well, so I know I’m not alone in my obsession.) On half of those occasions, I’ve spotted them—tiny forms in my binoculars, miles from shore, never visible with the naked eye. Never close enough to photograph. Never close enough to hear. But more than some people will ever experience.
Waiting at the water’s edge, the demands of daily life evaporate, the outside world shrinks to my field of vision and I absorb the beauty of my surroundings. Emptied of life’s usual clatter, I’m filled with peace and thankful for the experience, whether or not the whales appear. So it is with immense gratitude that I will continue this discipline of devotion, scanning our region’s shores as I stand alongside kindred spirits, wishing for whales, hoping, one day, to hear one more orca breathe.